Five novels and their occult inspirations

Guido Mina di Sospiro and Joscelyn Godwin, authors of The Forbidden Book, wrote about five novels and their occult inspirations for Boing Boing:

How do you find works of occult fiction that are not just fantasies? We have just published one of them: The Forbidden Book, released as an e-book by The Disinformation Company. It is a murder mystery, a romance, a political conundrum, but above all an account of magick in action. We think of it as belonging to a rare strain of fiction by authors who actually know occult traditions and the philosophies behind them. That way the reader is not just playing "let's pretend" but learning some insights into reality that are potentially life-changing. See below for more about The Forbidden Book.

Here are some other novels that we admire:

Screen Shot 2012 06 04 at 4 19 00 PMZanoni, by Bulwer Lytton, is the premier occult novel of the nineteenth century. Lytton was a novelist and playwright, a dandy, a politician, and eventually a Baron. He is supposed to have been initiated into a German Rosicrucian order, and to have been in the Orphic Circle, a London group that used child clairvoyants. Dickens and Disraeli were his friends, but they didn't follow his arcane interests. For instance, they weren't with him when French occult author and ceremonial magus Eliphas Levi, in Lytton's presence, evoked the spirit of the Greek Neopythagorean philosopher Apollonius of Tyana on a London rooftop. Zanoni is a description of initiations by one who has evidently passed through them. It is famous for introducing the themes of the "Dweller on the Threshold" who tries to block the aspirant's path, and the "augoeides" or luminous self. The novel tells about two men who have gained the secret of eternal life. One of them is content to rest on the accumulated wisdom of his 5,000 years, but Zanoni voluntarily gives up his immortality. He finds that human love is more precious still, even though death is its inexorable price.

NewImageAt the end of The Lord of the Rings, the elven princess Arwen Evenstar would make the same choice when she married Aragorn and became mortal. But neither Tolkien nor C.S. Lewis belonged to any occult order. That distinction belongs to the third of their "Inkling" group, Charles Williams. One day he may get his movies and be as famous as they. Williams was in a Christian magical order, the Fellowship of the Rosy Cross founded by the scholarly mystic A.E. Waite, and all seven of his novels draw on that experience. His method is to take some mythical or archetypal theme and see what would happen if it became manifest in the modern world. War in Heaven, for example, is about black and white magicians fighting for possession of the Holy Grail. Williams probably imagined his chilling account of a Black Mass, but considering that the book was published in 1930, he surely felt the tensions building in the spiritual world before breaking out on earth -- in other words, "As above, so below," an expression well known in the occult milieu and first used in The Emerald Tablet of Hermes.

NewImageThe Philosopher's Stone, by Colin Wilson, is not about alchemy but about Wilson's lifelong quest for "Faculty X," the transcendent consciousness and paranormal abilities that he and many others have known fleetingly but cannot summon at will. Wilson is a great story-teller, and his characters seem at first to be on a typical science-fiction jaunt, using technology to expand their consciousness. But the waters get deeper and the issues more serious, until the climactic appearance of the Old Ones -- that's right, straight out of H.P. Lovecraft! Dedicated to the Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges, The Philosopher's Stone anticipates Wilson's bold leap with The Occult, the book that would alienate the literary world while giving wings to his genius.

Screen Shot 2012 06 04 at 4 07 26 PMMercurius, the Marriage of Heaven and Earth, by Patrick Harpur, is the real alchemical novel for our time. It is set in a "Miss Marple" world in which a very English vicar was doing alchemy on the quiet. (He's probably based on the real Reverend William Ayton, a secretive member of the Golden Dawn.) A later tenant of the vicarage discovers his papers, and a complex web develops between her and him. The story tracks the stages of the alchemical work in a seductive mix of humor, ambiguity, and spiritual tension. It's also a painless crash course in Jungian psychology. As in Wilson's case, the novel is a curtain-raiser for a non-fiction masterpiece. For Harpur, this would be his Daimonic Reality: a Field Guide to the Otherworld.

NewImageThe Forbidden Book is about the deciphering of a real book from the 1600s, The Magical World of the Heroes by Cesare della Riviera. It's set in Italian locales of bewitching beauty and sinister resonance, with episodes in Washington and Provence. Beside love, murder, and pursuit, the American protagonist finds himself caught up in a burning issue of today's Europe: the growing Islamic presence and the reaction against it. On top of that, the book reveals things about sexual magic, its powers and its dangers, that you won't easily find anywhere else.


  1. If you’re including novels based on alchemy and Hermetic beliefs, you MUST include John Crowley’s Ægypt tetralogy.

  2. So I’m assuming these have all been optioned, written and shot and will be appearing in theatres soon since, that’s how I find Internet PR works these days.

    1. Well that’s one person’s opinion. For my money, Joscelyn Godwin is really beyond reproach when it comes to the western esoteric tradition. Whether or not you like his prose as applied to fiction, there’s a great deal of substance to everything he writes, including “The Forbidden Book” (yes, I’ve read it and enjoyed it both as a whodunnit and as a packed treatise on sex magic(k) and other occult ritual and practice). But don’t take my word for it, here are some opinions from other authors whose words you may take more seriously than mine or Mr. Vincent’s:

      “This is a really excellent book — gripping, thought-provoking, mysterious, deep and resonant with esoteric knowledge. It keeps you turning the pages in a most compelling way. I couldn’t put it down.” — Graham Hancock, author of the international bestsellers The Sign of the Seal, Fingerprints of the Gods, Heaven’s Mirror.

      “In the sure hands of Guido Mina di Sospiro and Joscelyn Godwin, The Forbidden Book is many things at once: murder mystery, meditation on religious extremism, and a complex but invitingly deep introduction into the esoteric. I don’t think I’ve encountered as original a book as this in a long time and I’m confident it will resonate with readers everywhere.” — Mitchell Kaplan, co-founder of Miami Book Fair International, president of Books & Books, 2011 recipient of the Literarian Award for Outstanding Service to the American Literary Community by the National Book Foundation.

      “Watch out Dan Brown and Umberto Eco! Here’s a real esoteric thriller written by some real Illuminati who know the real thing and aren’t afraid to let the secret out. Sex, magic, politics, and mystery. The Forbidden Book is a gripping, exciting, and illuminating read.” — Gary Lachman, author of A Dark Muse: A History of the Occult, Jung The Mystic: The Esoteric Dimensions of Carl Jung’s Life and Teachings, The Quest For Hermes Trismegistus From Ancient Egypt to the Modern World.

      “Much more than simply a captivating adventure with a generous dose of love, intrigue, sex, and violence, The Forbidden Book provides an introduction to alchemical-magical practices of the late Italian Renaissance, a spiritual tradition that persists surreptitiously to this day. The authors, in possession of a deep understanding of – and sympathy for – esoteric Hermeticism, successfully weave pearls of occult wisdom into the fabric of their book, creating a compelling story-within-the-story that is all the more genuine for being based on an authentic early seventeenth century alchemical text. This is a book rich on many levels, with multiple layers of meaning and interpretation, from the riveting action-packed twenty-first century fictional narrative to deep insights into the ancient and enduring perennial philosophy. Indeed, The Forbidden Book is itself a modern incarnation of the ‘forbidden book’ which forms the central theme of the novel. Read it closely!” — Robert M. Schoch, author of Voyages of the Pyramid Builders, Pyramid Quest, and The Parapsychology Revolution.

      1. “But don’t take my word for it, here are some opinions from other authors whose words you may take more seriously than mine or Mr. Vincent’s…”

        Did you actually read his review? The part where he writes this:
        “My interest was piqued even more when the first couple of pages of my copy included fulsome advance praise from such notables as Graham Hancock, Mitch Horovitz and Gary Lachman. Sadly, I have not come here to join in with their praises for this book. I have come to bury it.”

        So you see, he was influenced by your promotional review blurbs, just not enough to overcome his own experience reading the book. 

        I also found this comment strange: “Joscelyn Godwin is really beyond reproach when it comes to the western esoteric tradition. Whether or not you like his prose as applied to fiction, there’s a great deal of substance to everything he writes…”But when you read a work of fiction, the primary purpose is to be entertained, to tell a good story. How awesome his knowledge of Western esoteric tradition is should be a secondary concern. Why would you slog through a fiction book you don’t like just to pick up kernels of teachings you could most likely easier get from a non-fiction title of your choice? 

        1. Dear Jason, I think you misread my comment, in which I stated, “yes, I’ve read it and enjoyed it both as a whodunnit and as a packed treatise on sex magic(k).” It wasn’t by any means a “slog,” to read the book; in fact it would be easy enough to enjoy the book in the Dan Brown mode, where the esoteric background material is incidental to a rollicking murder mystery. The fact that Godwin’s book is much more than that is what I wished to convey, but not clearly enough for some readers I must now conclude.

          I hope you’ll decide to read the book and form an opinion for yourself, though, rather than choosing between my opinion and Mr. Vincent’s.

    2. The whole blog entry is a nice bit of marketing implying that their novel is the apotheosis and culmination of the preceding works, the first of which, Zanoni, is canonical (as much as it can be as a “popular” occult work).

  3. The best occult influenced fictions, for my money, are the novels of Gustav Meyrink, particularly The Golem, The Green Face, and The Angel of the West Window.

    Also, if Joceyln is reading these comments: loved Arktos and Atlantis and the Cycles of Time!

  4. Umberto Eco’s Focault’s Pendulum would seem to fit your catagory though the author and his main characters don’t believe the premises of The Art. The characters, at least, do make a prentense of believing , and the author is knowledgable of the subject.

    1.  After I read “Focault’s Pendulum”, I mentioned to Robert Anton Wilson that it amounted to an alternate version of “Illuminatus!”.  He said, “Good.  Now I don’t have to read it.”

  5. My favorite ‘real world’ occult novel would be Foucault’s Pendulum by Umberto Eco. 

    1. Our comments overlapped in content and timing, though the “real world” appellation might be seen as dismissive of the believers, and a theme in the pendulum is the dangers inherent in that. It is worth recalling the famous quote about what is indistinguishable from magik, and recognizing the value of humility and one’s own limitations.

      1. Thank you for reminding me about the value of humility which can be all too easily forgotten.

    2. Not sure what your “real world” reference means, but it is a truly wonderful novel. When someone was first explaining the Dan Brown thing to me I had to go and read “Da Vinci Code” and it felt like the airport version of ‘Foucault’s Pendulum”. Eco can’t help the effusive, “Look at all this knowledge! Just look at it!” but he tells a great story.

      1. True. I have serious problems with the ‘real world’ as most people envisage it.
        We all have knowledge but in the course of its development we may become confused (individually and collectively) and lose sight of what we are looking for causing further confusion. It is all part of the evolutionary development of the human brain. Foucault’s Pendulum all adds up.
        The Western mind, however, is particularly confused.

  6. I have no doubt that these are all fine, entertaining novels, but promoting them as more worthy of attention just because they are ” by authors who actually know occult traditions and the philosophies behind them” is doing them a disservice.
    That line of thinking would only mean that a work of fantasy automatically gains value if it’s based on somebody else’s balderdash instead your own imagination, wich would make “Twillight” a better novel than “Dracula” by default. Not to mention the book of Mormon.
    Yeah, I went there. Made up stuff is made up stuff, it’s usefulness is measured in terms of estetics and in effectiveness of metaphor, not in reliance on tradition. If you read esoterica and go “but that’s not how it actually works” then you’re doing it wrong.

    1. Not to offend believers, but we have clear evidence of when much of this stuff was made up, because it’s so recent. Much of the material about the Masons and the Illuminati, for example, was produced by pro-Catholic, pro-royalty, anti-Jacobin writers in the 18th century. You can actually got the manuscripts and see it happening, and know exactly why. Connections between the troubadour poets, the Cathars, and the mysteries of Eleusis were being manufactured around the same time and come into full bloom in the late 19th century with the work of Gabriel Rossetti, who was writing as an exiled republican, so the exact opposite end of the political spectrum, but still politically motivated.

      And Blavatsky’s just too easy; she was such a fraud that even her personal secretary GRS Mead acknowledged it. That said there are aspects of the “wisdom tradition” that are extremely compelling and, unlike Christian dogma, its emphasis on obscurity and individual enlightenment allows it a more flexible response to changing mores, so it can be more useful. Take for example, the “discovery” of sex magic right at the time when sexuality was bursting into the open from the Victorian era.

      Anyway, historically speaking, this is a very interesting topic.

      1. it doesn’t matter whether a belief system is ‘true’ or not (if that were the metric then Xtianity would be tossed into the dust bin) – all that matters is ‘does the belief system you use work for you?’

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